Eagles' Villanueva 'feels like a football player again'

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Eagles' Villanueva 'feels like a football player again'

It’s been a while since Alejandro Villanueva could call himself a football player.

For Villanueva, a former U.S. Army captain who spent the past four years in the military (see story), the Eagles’ OTAs over the past three weeks have been the first time he's participated in football activities since a tryout with the Cincinnati Bengals following his senior season at Army in 2009.

“I feel like a football player again,” Villanueva said following the Eagles' OTA on Tuesday. “I feel like I’m doing all the requirements that all the other players are doing, so I feel like I’m part of the team.”

However, his time with the Eagles so far hasn’t had much in common with his football experience at Army.

At 6-foot-9 and 277 pounds, Villanueva’s size and speed were so uncommon for Army that his coaches were never quite sure how to best maximize his abilities. He played three positions in four years, starting off as a defensive lineman, developing into a starting left offensive tackle as a junior before converting to wide receiver as a senior and leading the team with 34 receptions, 522 yards and five touchdowns.

The Eagles have determined that his size will be best spent as a defensive end, a decision that is perfectly fine with Villanueva. After the constant shuffling in college, he is looking forward to finally being able to develop at one position.

“[Playing defense] is a lot different but the coaching has been great, so I’ve been able to learn from all of them,” Villanueva said. “If they think I have a better chance of playing defensive [line], I’ll play there.”

Having not played defense since the beginning of his sophomore year of college, Villanueva has relied heavily on his new teammates to learn defensive coordinator Billy Davis’ scheme, particularly two-time Pro Bowler Trent Cole and second-year defensive end Brandon Bair.

Although his height would seem to give him potential as a pass rusher, Villanueva has concentrated mostly on learning the run-stuffing techniques that come with playing defensive end in the 3-4.

“[Defensive line] coach [Jerry] Azzinaro has been adamant about the key points I can focus on,” Villanueva said. “In our scheme, striking and using my legs are those things. As we progress, hopefully I can put those things into play and improve from where I started.”

In reality, Villanueva’s focus is not on what position he plays as much as it is simply making the team.

A team captain his senior year at West Point, Villanueva's biggest adjustment has been adapting his mindset to fighting for a roster spot after being a key player in college.

Earning a spot on special teams will likely be his best chance to make the final roster; he spent much of Tuesday’s session practicing with the kick return unit.

“Playing football at Army is pretty special and obviously I have a lot more experience there,” Villanueva said. “[Playing for the Eagles] is a different situation. At Army I played four years and was always able to contribute and now I’m just trying to make the team.

“Making the team [is my goal], so if they put me on all the special teams that would be the best news.”

In his few weeks as an Eagle, Villanueva has already received numerous questions from his teammates about his time in the Army. He served three tours in Afghanistan during his four years of service.

Although he is eager to move on with this new chapter in his life as a professional athlete, Villanueva has no problem with teammates asking him about his past. If anything, the camaraderie in the locker room has been his favorite part of playing football again.

“Sometimes they ask about it (being in the army) when they have a question that’s been burning them,” Villanueva said. “Usually they have a question about how things are run. It’s a learning experience for a lot of them. My teammates have been awesome, so it’s been pretty fun overall.”

Report: Nelson Agholor expected to be active for Eagles vs. Bengals

Report: Nelson Agholor expected to be active for Eagles vs. Bengals

Nelson Agholor is expected to be active for the Eagles against the Bengals on Sunday, according to ESPN's Adam Caplan. 

Agholor, who has struggled mightily in his second pro season, was held out of the Eagles' loss to the Packers on Monday night. Undrafted rookie and preseason standout Paul Turner dressed in his place.

The Eagles may be without their leading receiver, Jordan Matthews, who has an ankle injury and is considered a game-time decision.

For the season, Agholor has 27 catches for 264 yards in 10 games. His lone touchdown reception came in the Eagles' win over the Browns in Week 1.

Eagles-Bengals 5 things: Season isn't over yet

Eagles-Bengals 5 things: Season isn't over yet

Eagles (5-6) at Bengals (3-7-1)
1 p.m. on FOX

Eagles +1.5

The Eagles' backs may be against the wall, but the season isn't over yet. Five games still remain, beginning with a trip to Cincinnati to take on the Bengals on Sunday.

With a 5-6 record, the Eagles would need some help to reach the playoffs. Of course, it's a moot point if they don't help themselves and end their current two-game skid. Who knows, a win over a 3-7-1 Bengals squad could be the beginning of an improbable run.

1. Unwelcome in the jungle
If the Eagles do manage to defeat the Bengals on Sunday, they would be making history. While it's not exactly a huge sample size, the franchise has never won in Cincinnati, posting a 3-0-1 record in four tries.

They've come close on multiple occasions. In 1994, the Bengals tied the Eagles with three seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, recovered a muffed kickoff, then kicked another field goal to win 33-30 in regulation. And in 2008, the clubs finished in a 13-13 tie when the Eagles committed four turnovers to Cincinnati's one.

Granted, winning at Paul Brown Stadium isn't a problem that's inherent to the Eagles. Since 2013, the Bengals are 21-6-1 at home, and that's even going 2-2-1 this year. "The Jungle" is an underrated difficult place to play — although whether the crowd will be behind a losing team this week remains to be seen.

2. The road to victory
Once again, Eagles coach Doug Pederson faced questions about balance after the offense's run-pass ratio was seriously out of whack in the loss to the Packers on Monday. This week, it would behoove Pederson to listen to critics of his play-calling, because pounding the rock will likely be the blueprint to victory.

That's because Cincinnati's run defense is among the worst in the NFL. The unit ranks 28th in terms of ground yards per game, surrendering 180 or more three times this season while allowing an average of 4.4 per carry.

Furthermore, the Bengals are much stronger defending the ball when it's in the air. They're not dominant or anything, coming into the game ranked 13th against the pass, but it's obvious where the real weakness is.

Given that top receiver Jordan Matthews is battling an ankle injury and rookie quarterback Carson Wentz has struggled to put the entire offense on his shoulders, it's clear what the Eagles should do. Lean heavily on Darren Sproles and Wendell Smallwood, and play the ball-control and field-position angles if they must.

3. Eyes on Eifert
The good news for the Eagles is they are catching the Bengals without All-Pro wide receiver A.J. Green and versatile running back Giovani Bernard — injured players who previously accounted for 60 percent of the team's offense. The bad news is Cincinnati recently got one of their weapons back.

Tyler Eifert has been back in action for five games now, and the fourth-year tight end has picked right up where he left off following a Pro Bowl campaign in 2015. In the Bengals' last four contests, Eifert has 20 receptions for 303 yards and two touchdowns, which would project to 80, 1,212 and eight over a full season.

The Eagles have a few things going for them. They haven't been getting killed by the tight end position this season, and the Bengals currently don't have anybody else the defense really needs to focus in on. That being said, this offense is centered around Eifert right now, who's been targeted 34 times in the last four games. He's an impact player.

4. Better clean up their act
It's no secret that penalties have been a huge problem for the Eagles all season. Officials are flagging the team 8.2 times per game, which is the third-highest rate in the NFL this season. Needless to say, those calls have hurt, costing them an average of 64.3 yards.

That's not going to fly against the Bengals, who believe it or not are one of the cleanest teams in the league, at least as far as the refs are concerned. At only 5.7 penalties per game, Cincinnati boasts the third-lowest rate, while their average of 44.9 yards lost is the best out of all 32 teams.

The Eagles have already proven they have trouble overcoming the officials. Going on the road and facing a team that's the total inverse could be a huge problem. They're not going to get many freebies, nor can they afford to give them away.

This team has no margin for error to begin with. In what is anticipated to be a very tight game, the Eagles better not let flags or lack there of against their opponent influence the outcome.

5. It's not over yet
At this point, the Eagles have minimal roads to the playoffs, but a victory Sunday would at least serve to get them back in the conversation. A division championship is officially off the table. A wild-card berth, on the other hand, is still a possibility.

Washington currently owns the sixth and final spot in the tournament at 6-4-1, although the Eagles would have a chance to make up some ground with their meeting next week. The Buccaneers are 6-5, and the Vikings are 6-6, followed by the Packers and Saints sharing the Eagles' 5-6 record. It's not like anybody is running away with this.

So while postseason play might seem like a long shot, it's not exactly outlandish, either. With a win over the Bengals on Sunday, the Eagles could very well be hosting Washington next week in a battle for their playoff lives. That means it's not quite time to give up just yet.